The Coast Of Akron, by Adrienne Miller

Dark secrets at the heart of American family life
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The Independent Culture

Thanks to the 2004 presidential election, Ohio is no longer merely a state, but "the heartland", a term which conjures up soccer moms and "values voters": people who spent time in focus groups unloading their homespun wisdom on the rest of America.

You won't find much of this place in Adrienne Miller's clever debut novel, The Coast of Akron. Unfolding over several decades and across blurred gender lines, the novel introduces a refreshingly maladapted American family - from Ohio. To paraphrase Philip Larkin, eccentricity trickles downward, and the source of that tributary here is paterfamilias Lowell Haven.

With his daytime-TV good looks and important air, Lowell is a master of passing other people's ideas off as his own. We learn about this from diary entries by his ex-wife, Jenny, whom Lowell met long ago in England, married, and bore a child with - before moving on.

Fast-forward a few years, and Jenny is really choking on Lowell's exhaust. While she lies in bed bemoaning her fate, he has become a famous artist by spinning an inscrutable mythology. Miller seems to be making a subtle jab at the monomania of what stands for art these days.

As a farce, the book could not be more bizarre, or more dead-on-target. The Tudor mansion Lowell occupies with his lover, Fergus, is papered with pictures depicting Lowell in historical garb: as Henry VIII, as the Wife of Bath. Fame, Miller suggests, is the cruellest of currencies: it debases those in its thrall, makes monsters of those who wield it. Lowell can drag his lover through the dirt and still have his loyalty. Meanwhile, his daughter spends as much time tending to her devastated mother as she does to the Jag Lowell bought her with Fergus's money.

The whole Haven clan is tumbling swiftly down the coast of Akron, even though there is no coastline in this part of Ohio. But as a metaphor, it works. They're a mess. Lowell pushes his lover to the brink of a meltdown, and Jenny discovers she has devoted her life to serving a genius who isn't one.

This fear of collapse is the dark secret of much great American fiction about the family, from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Corrections. But the novel this one most resembles is Don DeLillo's classic White Noise. Like the Gladneys of DeLillo's book, the family in this lively debut has a slap-happy giddiness that seems almost to come from something in the air.

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